We are frequently reminded by the press that lifelong careers are a thing of the past. This is usually packaged with jargon about how this is a good thing; it apparently allows for social-mobility and self-improvement. The conditions under which lifelong careers have been made impossible are rarely commented upon: the destruction of industry under successive Conservative governments in the 1980s and 1990s; the increasingly multi-national tendency of big business; the total restriction of the power of trade unions; and the outsourcing of previously corporate jobs to multi-national, multi-industry companies. Under these conditions, the vast majority of work, globally, has become precarious. It is unusual, today, to find a work-place in which over 80% of workers have served over a decade, and nearly a third of staff have served more than two. And yet, this is the make-up of UCL’s Estates and Facilities section: women and men who have worked for decades maintaining the infrastructure of the university, often hours before students arrive, or long after they have left in the evenings.
This period of destabilisation of jobs in Britain began in 1979. After the Winter of Discontent, Thatcher was able to premise her election victory on her commitment to the emasculation of the trade unions. Consequently, the destruction of industry could be rolled through, with limited resistance. Nonetheless, the Labour Governments of the mid-1970s had begun a process of establishing full legal equality in the workplace, with the Sex Discrimination Act (1975) and the Race Relations Act (1976).
1979 was also the year that Evelyn Thomas joined the staff at UCL. Today she is the longest standing of nearly a hundred staff that the management intend on outsourcing to private contractors. But she is not alone in having worked through periods of great change. 32 of the staff threatened with outsourcing were already working for UCL when this year’s cohort of first-year undergraduates was born.
The 1980s saw a great strengthening of the anti-racist lobby, often in protest movements (for example the riots in Brixton and in Broadwater Farm), and in local government organisations such as the Greater London Council. The Commission for Racial Equality, which had its origin in the Race Relations Act continued to campaign for formal and legal racial equality, and more generally for the promotion of a diverse and multicultural society. The reactive steps of challenging discrimination where it exists have worked in tandem with progressive demands for equality. The codependence of these terms has underpinned all of the developments in anti-racist politics over the past three decades.
And yet, it was not until the 1990s that the British establishment started to offer a sustained critique of racism as a structural element of the institutions of society. Twenty years after the election of Thatcher, the Macpherson Report (1999) defined institutional racism as “The collective failure of an organisation to provide an appropriate and professional service to people because of their colour, culture, or ethnic origin.” Alongside this definition, the report made a number of recommendations, such as the inclusion of anti-racist education in the National Curriculum. The aim was to create an anti-racist consensus. This process was formalised, at least in public institutions, such as schools, hospitals, and councils, by an amendment to the Race Relations Act (2000), which demanded that each body establish an anti-racist code of practice.
Throughout these years of the development of British anti-racist policy, a diverse workforce began not only to grow, but to be sustained in UCL’s Estates and Facilities department. Today it remains the most ethnically diverse part of the university.
With the government’s attempt to create a consensus on anti-racism, it has often been supposed that today, in Britain, we live in post-racial times. Indeed, many hard-fought victories have been won, and life for black and ethnic minority workers has, in many ways, been greatly improved since 1979. Yet, the problems of modern work, with its short-term contracts, reduced working hours, and outsourcing, have often disproportionately impacted on black and ethnic minority staff. These two currents: the attempt to achieve racial equality and the making precarious of all work, run against each other. Right now, the possibility of outsourcing Estates and Facilities staff at UCL threatens not only the diverse make-up of UCL, but the livelihoods of a great many people, who have given their lives’ work to the university.
One of the last polices passed by the New Labour Government was the Equalities Bill (2010), which came into force as an Act in October. When it was proposed, the Bill was surprisingly radical, in that it demanded the recognition of “the inequalities of outcome which result from socioeconomic disadvantage.” Unsurprisingly this clause was stripped from the bill by the Coalition government before it came into law.
Perhaps worse than this, though, is a review paper that the Government delivered in March this year, named “The public sector Equality Duty: reducing bureaucracy” This paper has single-handedly destroyed many of the hard-won gains of anti-racism in public institutions over the last three decades. Hidden amongst its pages is the deformalisation of nearly ever requirement of public institutions to be accountable to the law with regards to discrimination and equality. Instead, the review says, public institutions will be “held to account by the public.” There is, of course, no elucidation of how this is done.
Upon discovering the plan to outsource Estates and Facilities Staff, UNISON, the representative union of the majority of the affected staff, wrote to the management of UCL demanding an equality analysis of the consequences of outsourcing such a diverse part of the university.
Mr David Smith, Head of Facilities, instead, decided to hide behind the new destructive legislation. He wrote, “In relation to the legal obligation to complete Equality Analysis, Human Resources have confirmed that whilst the general duty of the Equality Act came into force on 5th April, the draft regulations which underpin it were withdrawn by the Government on 17th March. One of these withdrawn regulations was to undertake equality analysis, so at present there is no legal requirement to undertake a formal equality analysis. Therefore, on this basis, we will not conduct another impact assessment.” If this is not institutional racism, we do not know what is.
The consequences of outsourcing are clear: workers are likely to lose a significant proportion of their pensions, will have wages cut, will not enjoy trade union representation, and will work under generally worse conditions. We have already seen this happen at UCL: outsourced workers in the Refectory recently had their 52-week-a-year contracts cut to just 40 weeks, amounting to a pay-cut of over 20%. With no means of recourse, and no proper union representation, there can be little resistance to analogous changes that will affect newly outsourced staff. These are workers who have spent decades paying into good public-sector pension funds, who will be left with measly private pensions. These are workers who have spent decades paying trade union subscriptions, and yet they will be left without union representation when they most need it. We can stop this now by demanding that the workers are kept on in-house contracts, and supporting the workers’ demand for industrial action.